Illinois is home to more than 350 endangered species, and in the coming weeks we'll take a closer look at some of our state's rarest wildlife. Let's start by meeting a tiny bird that's making a comeback from the brink of local extinction, the piping plover
Known by its scientific name, Charadrius melodus
, this little shore bird once roamed sandy beaches throughout the Great Lakes, but habitat destruction and nest disturbance have drastically reduced its numbers. In fact, the birds have become so rare that Illinois went more than 30 years without a documented sighting.
About the size of a sparrow, piping plovers are known for their distinctive, chime-like call. They make their home on open, sandy shorelines where their gray and white feathers help them to blend in with the sand and surf. Both the male and female birds work together to build a nest by scraping a depression in the sand which is then lined with pebbles and bits of broken shell. The female typically lays four eggs which are tended by both parents. Twenty-five days later, the chicks emerge and begin foraging almost immediately.
Piping plovers were given federal protection in the mid-1980s after a survey in the Great Lakes region turned up only 12 breeding pairs. By 2008 that number had risen to 63 breeding pairs (a total of 126 birds), most of which were found in Michigan where an active recovery program has been in place. Illinois, however, still had no piping plovers. The last sighting here had been in 1979.
That changed in the summer of 2009 when a pair of plovers were seen tending a nest with three eggs along an isolated stretch of beach north of Chicago. Unfortunately, piping plovers are notoriously finicky parents and are known to abandon nests when they fear predation or feel threatened, making them particularly susceptible to human disturbance. After this pair eventually abandoned the Illinois nest, the eggs were taken to Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo
where they were incubated and hatched. The chicks then traveled to the University of Michigan's Biological Station at Pellston where they were reared until they were large enough to fend for themselves. In August of last year, all three chicks were released at Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
, near one of the few surviving wild plover populations.
While one nest may not seem like a great comeback, it is certainly cause for celebration among conservationists and bird lovers who see it as a hopeful sign of recovery. Scott Garrow, the Illinois Department of Wildlife biologist who discovered the Illinois pair, called the find "one of the true highlights of my 30-year career."
If you would like to help save the piping plover, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service is looking for volunteers
to monitor nesting sites. Also, help protect coastal areas by sticking to established paths or boardwalks. Plover nests are difficult to see or may be hard to recognize and the birds are very sensitive to disturbances. Keep your pets leashed and help the birds to nest in peace.
Photos: Bill Byrne-USFWS/Flickr; USFWS/Flickr; Jamie Blankenship/Flickr